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Panthers host Hurricanes with shot at winning Southeast title

(Sports Network) - The Florida Panthers have earned their first trip to the playoffs in 12 years, but they'll still have the Southeast Division title to play for when they host the Carolina Hurricanes tonight at BankAtlantic Center.

The Panthers have backed into their first postseason berth since the spring of 2000, losing five straight and eight of their last nine games. Despite losing a regulation test in Washington on Thursday, Florida still clinched a postseason berth that night thanks to Buffalo's loss in Philadelphia.

All the Panthers need to do to ensure their first-ever division title is earn a point in today's regular-season finale. Florida could also win the Southeast even if it loses in regulation tonight, provided the Capitals, who are two points behind the Panthers, lose tonight against the New York Rangers. If the teams wind up tied after today's action, Washington will take the division title and the third seed in the East due to more non-shootout wins.

Florida had at least gained a point in two straight losses before getting dealt Thursday's 4-2 loss by the Capitals. Mikael Samuelsson and Ed Jovanovski scored for the Panthers, while Jose Theodore stopped 19-of-23 shots in defeat.

"This team is full of character and we're proud to have brought the Panthers organization back to the playoffs," said Florida general manager Dale Tallon. "Despite some of the adversity that we faced this year, the coaching staff and players on this team showed their determination to win and accomplish one of our main objectives - qualifying for postseason play."

Florida is 20-9-11 as the host this season and it will open the playoffs at home next week if it can win the Southeast title.

The Hurricanes will not partake in the postseason tournament, but Carolina is coming off consecutive victories and would like to spoil Florida's division title hopes tonight.

Carolina posted a win against visiting Montreal in its last game on Thursday, as Eric Staal scored the game-winning goal in the third round of the shootout to lift the Hurricanes to the 2-1 decision at PNC Arena.

Staal went in on goal with speed, making a quick deke and lifting the puck past the stick side of Habs goalie Peter Budaj to seal the victory. Cam Ward, who earned his 30th win of the season, stopped Lars Eller and David Desharnais in the shootout while former Hurricane Erik Cole shot off the post.

Chad LaRose scored in regulation for the Hurricanes, while Ward posted 30 stops.

"It was a really good effort from everyone tonight," Hurricanes head coach Kirk Muller said. "It was great to see [Staal] be the final shooter and to score the final goal."

Thursday's victory gave Carolina a 20-14-7 record at home this year, but the club is just 13-18-9 as the guest.

Florida won the first four meetings of the season with the Hurricanes before Carolina posted a 3-1 home win on March 21. The Panthers have won two straight and six of their last eight home tests against the 'Canes.

04/07 11:24:59 ET

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